11.04.10

Should We Be Scared of the Superjumbo Jet?

Qantas and Singapore Airlines have grounded the double-decker Airbus 380s after an engine explosion forced an emergency landing in Singapore of a Qantas flight with 459 on board. Aviation expert Clive Irving on why it’s a serious scare.

One of the world’s largest airliners, the giant Airbus A380, came perilously close to exploding in flight after leaving Singapore last night. On Thursday both the airline operating that flight, Australia’s Qantas, and Singapore Airlines, stopped flying their A380s. This follows an alarming in-flight engine failure that urgently raises questions about the safety of the latest generation of Rolls Royce jet engines.

The Qantas and Singapore A380s are powered by four Rolls Royce Trent 900 engines. Passengers on Qantas Flight 32 from Singapore to Sydney heard a loud bang soon after takeoff and saw smoke coming from one engine. Debris fell on the Indonesian island of Batam.

So when Qantas Chief Alan Joyce spoke Thursday of a “significant engine failure” he knew how close this flight had come to something much worse than an emergency landing. Losing an A380 would traumatize not only airline passengers but the aviation industry—the airplane can be configured to carry as many as 800 passengers, although current cabin layouts with first, business, premium economy and coach are limited to around 550.

This is not the first serious failure of a Rolls Royce engine this year. Early in August an engine on test at the Rolls Royce plant in England suffered an uncontained failure in which the whole engine was destroyed. This had serious consequences not only for Rolls Royce but for Boeing. The engine was destined for test flights in Boeing’s much delayed 787 Dreamliner.

Both the engine that failed on the Qantas A380 and the engine for the Dreamliner represent the cutting edge of Rolls Royce design, a series called Trent. Rolls are competing in a world market for big jets in which there are only four contenders. The others are the European based Engine Alliance and two U.S. manufacturers, General Electric and Pratt & Whitney.

The Rolls engine was chosen for the A380 by Qantas, which is flying six of the superjumbos, and Singapore Airlines, which is flying 11.

Pictures of the crippled airplane after it returned to Singapore show a large piece of the outer cladding of the engine, the cowling, blown away, leaving jagged edges. This indicates an explosion inside the engine that spewed debris and tore away the cowling.

A primary rule of jet engine design is that any internal failure should be contained within its casing, which is reinforced for that purpose. Hot flying debris poses a serious threat to both the wings, where the main gas tanks are, and the fuselage skin that protects the cabin. Indeed, video taken by a passenger on board Flight 32 shows just how close the A380 came to disaster: It reveals shrapnel damage on the skin of the wings. Passengers had to endure more than an hour more in the air while the captain dumped fuel before making his emergency landing in Singapore—with a full fuel load the A380 is too heavy to land.

By far the major operator of A380s, Emirates, based in Dubai, chose instead an engine made by the Engine Alliance which is, in fact, based on designs by both the American manufacturers. Other A380 operators, Air France and Lufthansa, also opted for the Engine Alliance engines. (Emirates, which has ordered a staggering 90 of the giant jets, said Thursday that all of their A380s were operating without problems and they had no intention of grounding them.)

In Britain, Rolls Royce is such a national icon, based on a long record of pioneering jet engines, that a conspicuous failure of this kind is more than a blow to its business prospects. It’s an extraordinary fall from grace. Rolls shares fell on the London Stock Exchange Thursday morning.

Given the cost to Boeing of the failure of the 787 engine and the public-relations blowback on Qantas—an airline that prides itself on never having lost an airplane—Rolls now has to answer a tough question: Has competition forced them to press engines into service before they met the standards of engineering integrity that go with such an illustrious name?

Clive Irving is senior consulting editor at Conde Nast Traveler, specializing in aviation. Find his blog, Clive Alive, at CliveAlive.Truth.Travel.